Cheese scones are my madeleines

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Ceci n’est pas l’apprentissage littéraire

Or: why I don’t write book reviews.

I.

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Si l’on vient à nous dire que notre époque a bien d’autres soucis en tête que celui de faire de la poésie, nous répondrons : « Nous aussi ! » ; et nous serons encore heureux qu’on daigne enfin nous en justifier, ne serait-ce qu’en nous adressant un tel reproche.
Qu’on ne vienne pas non plus nous dire que notre action est superflue, car alors nous répondrons : le superflu suppose le nécessaire […]

Nous nous refuserons toujours à fuir la poésie pour la réalité, mais nous nous refuserons toujours aussi à fuir la réalité pour la poésie.
Et c’est pourquoi nous sommes aujourd’hui amenés à répondre à la grande question de Baudelaire :
—« Faut-il partir ? Rester ? Si tu peux rester, reste… »
—Nous savons qu’on ne peut jamais fuir que dans l’espace, et nous ne sommes pas encore assez vieux pour pouvoir décemment jouer à « sauve-mouton »
Nous restons.
Et c’est-à-dire par là que nous ne renonçons ni à avancer dans le temps, ni à l’avancer.

Not 2017.
Not Brexit or G20 or the SCROTUS.

1941.
Surrealist poetic Paris.
Via a 2016 novel.

China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris is awesome. Not least because it led me to that above, and to revisiting its marvellous world, via a surrealistically-serendipituously-named connection to the last thing we saw in the class I taught on Thursday.

Surrealism is alive and well and here and now.

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II.

(I.) above is the nearest I can manage to writing a book review. This is why I don’t write book reviews. It’s not just that I’m no good at them, and can’t. I won’t.

I love reading. I love writing. I love reading about writing, and literary criticism and commentary and essays, and writing about reading.

But book reviews? I have mixed feelings about them. Mostly, I dislike them and what they usually do—simplifying and reducing, rather than impressionistic or otherwise painterly fleeting moments of seduction—and stand for—commodification, marketing, consumerism—and how they are used by readers.

I do still read some. For example:

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Once upon a fairly long time ago, I first encountered The Book Review as an exercise at school. It was deeply frustrating because this first kind of book review—especially its French version, le résumé—was simple synopsis, undigested digest. It lacked and refused everything that actually made a book worth reading: all the beauties between the lines and under the surface; all that had to be worked at and worked out in geeky delight; all that required questioning, reflection, and interpretation; all the joy. This exercise sucked the life out of rapturous enraptured reading.

By the time we started Having To Do book reviews, I had already been reading for several years (untaught, in the wild, with childhood hyperlexia and brilliant public libraries). I couldn’t see how this exercise was supposed to be any good or use, or how it was supposed to help me or any of my peers and our reading. It seemed like an anti-reading, and anti-reading.

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Later, there were other reasons for disliking book reviews.

Twenty-odd years ago, I worked in bookselling. This was in Cambridge (the UK one). Some of our customers were students who were taking degrees in literature, who had chosen to do so, voluntarily, and who were doing so in a place with wonderful libraries and a rich literary life. They were spending three or four years of their lives just reading. How wonderful is that? And yet, some of these students would come in search of cribs on their set reading. Cliff Notes. That upset me. Sad, depressing, raging. What a waste of opportunity, minds, and potential.

Mostly, I felt sorry for the books.

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Other customers would come in looking for books they had read about in newspaper reviews. If we were lucky, the customer would have noted down the details. If we were really lucky, they’d remember which newspaper they’d been reading. Best of all? They’d talk, excitedly—going beyond the original book review to their reading of that review, going into why it attracted them, how it fit with their reading and interests—and you’d want to read the book too. Some customers became friendly regulars this way, and friends. This is also how I started reading the TLS and LRB.

Alas, for every such customer there were those who, it turned out after much detective-work, had read a review months or years ago and “their” book was out of print (in some cases, the publication where they’d met the review was also no more). Or it had not yet been published, or only in the original language, or the publication information was wrong (the TLS was particularly bad at this—publisher name, ISBN if any, date—in the 1990s). And the “it had the word ‘the’ in the title,” “it has a blue cover,” “someone said something about it on a [daytime] TV show” brigade.

I had a lot more sympathy for someone who’d first met a book through allusion, citation, or reference in another book; or who’d seen a film or read a translation or a Reader’s Digest condensed version. Yes, RD. There are works that I first met through Reader’s Digest and other retellings at my grandparents’ house and in serendipitous random readings in libraries and browsing in used-book-stores, charity shops, jumble sales, and yard sales. These are all translations in the broad sense, variations and retellings and refashionings that are kith and kin.

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Part of my work in that bookshop was reading its books. That is how you knew your stock, in an old-fashioned bookshop. We could use the whole bookshop as a library, borrowing books (there was An Official Form) for a short time provided that we returned them a.s.a.p. or on request, in perfect condition. The slightest crease in the spine? You’d have to buy it (with the staff discount, which was a terrible thing that caused me to spend more on books than rent).

In work there with French publishers, I also got to read pre-publication proofs of new books (and new editions of old ones). I would report back, and this involved doing comptes-rendus: somewhere between the flat-footed résumé and critique littéraire proper ; an improvement, but I still hated the exercise. I like doing work that feels easy (even if that often means hard work), and dislike work that feels hard (even if, on the face of it, and in most other people’s view, it is “in fact” easy). But I’m a simple creature, and respond well to carrots when used in exact and perfect counter-balance to sticks in a stable system of reliable patterns and predictable consequences. (There are other childhood reasons for needing this, from surviving its mad opposite.) I also respond well to gratuitous carrots, though I may seem perturbed and anxiously ask for reassurance that they’re not going to be followed by sticks.

So.

With the publishers, there were carrots. When book reps came to visit—which was comfortably often, as our bookshop was one of the four principal ones in the UK for French books, and one of the three main ones for French literature (no. 1 being the Official French Bookshop attached to the Embassy)—we would have nice lunches and discuss what was going well and what the trends seemed to be in French, in literature, and in the world of books and ideas generally. Not mere fashion: a combination of analysis and pattern recognition, of the Cayce Pollard / William Gibson sort. We’d exchange things to read. We’d exchange views thereon at our next meetings. Time in between was time for reading, and also for the necessary digestion and thinking.

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Proofs also circulated among us booksellers, and across departments; no Official Forms here, but books would circulate when we met up at the pub after work. When you returned a proof to a colleague, you would say some words about it. They would ask you questions. We would compare impressions and critical judgements. There would be a conversation. Such conversations were the basis for membership of this Unofficial Informal Book Club. Initial invitation followed standard recruitment procedures, subtly casual interrogation sounding you out for bookishness, and took place in the staff canteen at morning break.

This was a good workplace with a heavily subsidised staff canteen, for everyone from cleaners to chairman. It was also one of the lowest-paid jobs I’ve ever had, and the one with the best perks, and where I learned the most and the fastest; including looking beyond mere salary and valuing working conditions (and perks/benefits) and a workplace as a whole. This was where I learned about collegiality and intellectual community.

We had a morning break, lunch, and an afternoon break; each one in two shifts. The food was made by real human beings from real fresh raw materials, and it was good. Morning and afternoon breaks featured home baking. Mornings meant cheese scones at least once a week; you would smell them baking whenever you went out the back to collect a trolley of new books to shelve, or whenever that door opened when anyone else did so. My area was a few metres away from that door. Happy days. My Unofficial Book Club recruitment involved a cheese scone. It was only later that I appreciated quite how large a carrot that had been: cheese scones were much loved and precious, and would be reserved in advance.

Cheese melting and bread baking are, independently, comforting smells. Atavistic. Ancient inventions that are foundational to human culture. Combine the two—pizza, croque monsieur, Welsh rarebit, North American grilled cheese sandwich, and finest of all a cheesy bread made from scratch—and add that sweet caramelising note, its promise of the future happiness of crustiness, warm crumb, and the myriad alchemical marvels that happen to cheese when it is cooked slowly? Piped around a bookshop that has a simple old-fashioned air-circulating system over an hour or two? Then add happy associations of human association and a historical moment when the deep truths of literature were revealed.

You see, up until then I had thought that I knew what reading and literature were, and that I’d known all about them for years. I knew they were what made humans human. I knew they were real and alive. I didn’t know how alive they are, nor how they lived in symbiotic relationship with groups of human beings whose interactions amongst themselves, and with other human and non-human (bookish, literary) networks, were what kept literature (and humans) alive.

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Portrait of the fledgling reader as a solitary young woman

I was ignorant.

I learned.

I have never recovered from freshly-baked cheese scones.

My final past experience with book reviews was when doing film-reviewing at that time and a couple of years later. That was the proverbial nail in the coffin. The fun parts? Getting to interview people, and have those interviews turn into conversations. Because that is what literary criticism is about, and what distinguishes it from the anti-literary anti-criticism of mere plot-summary and synopsis; what elevates it to literary form. Literary criticism is reading and writing and alive. It is all that is necessary to life and all that is superfluous to a misreading of literature (and life) as a distillation of facts. It has reflexion, time, perception, feeling, and wonder; of having been actively inside some writing, in its world, sensing what makes it what it is; and of having got out again alive, albeit changed and into a world that has also changed because you have and because what you read had changed this world. And it has a burning desire to communicate and share and continue that joy and life.

III.

I’m thinking about all this at the moment because I’m teaching an undergraduate summer intensive course in French literature and textual analysis. And I’m thinking about connections between reading and eating because our set readings include some Montaigne. Thus: digestion and understanding; perception and sensation and affect and memory.

I started, as usual, by doing an “analyse textuelle” of the course’s title; we’ll be coming back to that title, and its analysis, and to what analysis means, over the course of the course.

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A manifesto and magical manifestation of interpretation and over-interpretation: 
the quantitative and the qualitative, analytics and analysis, and
the transcendent predictive transformative power of poetry in motion

This is a course about literature. It is about something precious that is valuable beyond value and worthwhile because it is of worth beyond the simply useful. Actually, no, let’s talk about that banal usefulness: because literature is useful. Literature is relevant: parce que la littérature nous élève (et pas seulement les élèves ; ou plutôt, nous en sommes toujours ses élèves, à vie), nous soulève, et après toute chute et retombée elle nous relève. It will make your life better, it may save your life, your life will be impoverished without it, you will be the richer for it, and through it—using it only while letting it use you—you will change and save the world.

In this course, you will meet magic. You will, hopefully, survive without being consumed by it, through abnegating all will to conquer, colonise, and consume it and instead learning to work with it in a relationship of reciprocity and mutual respect. (Alas that it is now too late to add this to my syllabus and its Learning Objectives And Outcomes. L’esprit de l’escalier… )

This is a literature course. I want it to be about reading. I desperately want to avoid plot summaries and simplistic superficial reduction of a whole rich work to a single Most Important Theme, useful exam snippets, to a single reading and interpretation.

The summer intensive format means working at double speed and with one week less than would happen in the fall or spring term. This could mean faster reading, with a danger of superficiality, of reading to capture a main gist.

On the other hand, this is a small class—indeed, the ideal size for intensive work, 8-15 people—which I’m hoping will help us in next week’s slow reading, deep reading, word by word, sitting still to fully savour an individual sound and its effects. We can go and have reading parties and discussion outside. Here at UBC, that means properly outdoors: in gardens and woods, and on beaches. For literary purposes, our outdoors is an improvement on the silent stasis of a classroom with a closed door, where the acoustics mean it’s difficult even to hear that most basic sign of life, breathing. And a change from the immediate external sounds that interrupt: the anti-aesthetic brute flat noise of UBC Building Operations’ beeping reversing vehicles: an assault on the ears, an affront to beauty, an attack on intelligent life.

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Outside, not very far away (5-10 minutes’ walk), we have a dynamic fluctuating background soundscape and a fuller sensory environment. Other ways of sitting that aren’t our horrid grey plastic excuses-for-chairs. Air on your skin and scents on the air.

Because textual analysis, literary criticism, and literature are as multi-sensory as they are otherwise “polysemic.” They are living organisms, inter-related in complex active ecosystems which humans and their worlds. We keep them alive. They are life for us. And literature is alive.

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IV.

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Ceci n’est pas l’enseignement littéraire, ni la lecture, ni la littérature

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